The unequal impact of the mental health crisis
Mental health problems will affect one person in four: a statistic repeatedly quoted these days. There are other numbers. People disabled by mental ill health have only a 20% employment rate in contrast to an overall disability employment rate of just under 50%: evidence of the prejudice and stigma associated with mental health and an indictment of government inaction and employer ignorance.
For everyone whose life is disrupted by mental ill health the consequences can be life-changing unless there is early intervention, adequate health care when needed, and employers with decent policies – all of which are rare enough today. But hidden in the overall stats is the reality that mental ill health is even more common among some sections of society as a result of inter-action with prejudice, discrimination and exclusion. This was the evidence from the TUC seminar on mental health in February 2016.
Women are bearing the brunt of cuts to services as well as being disproportionately hit by public sector job cuts, where a majority of workers are women. Up to 15% of women have post-natal depression. Eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders, substance and alcohol abuse, and attempted suicide all have greater impact on women.
In BME communities, men and women, there is a link between higher rates of mental ill health and socio-economic factors, education and employment: every BME community faces an “ethnic penalty” related to both direct and indirect racism. The reluctance to access services partly results from fear of prejudiced stereotypes: why else are black people more likely to be treated with psychotropic drugs, or face confinement?
The seminar took place days after the closure of PACE, the national mental health charity for LGBT people, a massive loss because people with mental health problems arising from institutional discrimination, heteronormativity (the assumption that everyone is heterosexual) – which often becomes internalised homophobia – need specialist support which is fast being cut to nothing. A disproportionate percentage of young LGBT people are thinking about or attempting suicide.
Every year there are thousands of hate crimes based on race, sexuality, gender identity and disability which can have a lasting impact on the victim’s mental health as can domestic abuse.
Young people face the consequences of much higher unemployment combined with the effect of the housing shortage and high rents. Forty percent had symptoms of mental illness. Nearly nine percent have self-harmed. For young trans people, still facing mountainous prejudice and misunderstanding, and the challenges of dealing with sometimes unsympathetic medical professionals, families, schools, and unacceptable delays in accessing gender identity services, the mental health consequences are extraordinary: 88% had experienced depression (2012 study), 53% had self-harmed, 48% had attempted suicide.
Trying to prevent mental ill health is a task for all trade unionists in every workplace and relies on changing employer attitudes and policies. There is plenty of advice and training available on ways to achieve mentally healthy workplaces. The seminar added an understanding that while such work is essential, it is not sufficient. Challenging the stigma associated with mental ill health also depends on overcoming racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia.